Chester planners wrestle with scope of short-term rental ordinance

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2022 Telegraph Publishing LLC

While the main event was a warned public hearing for an amendment to the town’s Unified Development Bylaws — which includes its zoning regulations — Monday night’s Chester Planning Commission meeting spent far more time and energy on the undercard — a discussion of the latest draft of an ordinance to regulate short-term rental properties, commonly referred to as Airbnbs.

Lee Gustafson asks questions about the rental ordinance. Behind him from left are Polly Montgomery, Ian Montgomery and Cathy Giurtino

Lee Gustafson asks questions about the rental ordinance. Behind him from left are Polly Montgomery, Ian Montgomery and Kathy Giurtino

Kicking off the discussion, commission member Peter Hudkins noted that he is the owner of a home that belonged to his parents that he is keeping for his nephews and it is currently a short-term rental. He said he accepts the costs of the  proposed ordinance and having disclosed his connection to the question, felt he had no need to recuse himself.

Zoning Administrator Preston Bristow told the meeting that having come from working in Killington – which has about 800 short-term rentals compared with about 80 in Chester – at first he didn’t see a problem. But in fielding calls about the rentals and seeing a large increase in their numbers, he came to feel that the town should regulate them. He noted that 80 comes out to be 8 percent of the housing stock.

The basic purposes of the ordinance, according to Bristow, is to make sure that owners are following the rules – especially concerning safety and septic systems – and to gather information.

The draft ordinance would require an annual registration of short-term rentals including:

  • The number of guests allowed in the rental based on the number of bedrooms. Rentals would be allowed two guests per bedroom plus an additional two guests. A three-bedroom home could host a maximum of eight. Those properties that would allow eight or fewer guests could “self certify” the number of bedrooms while a property hosting more than eight would have to provide proof of the number of bedrooms through a septic permit or for older homes lister information.
  • A fire and safety inspection (more than eight guests) or self-certification on an inspection form. See the self certification form here.
  • Posting of contact information. State statute requires the contact telephone for the person responsible for the rental unit as well as the Department of Health and the Division of Fire Safety.
  • Self certification of health and safety measures. See link for that form above.
  • Proof of liability insurance.

The ordinance also provides a schedule of fines for violations including operating without registering.

A few of the short term rentals in Chester listed on Airbnb

A few of the short term rentals in Chester listed on Airbnb

Commission Chair Hugh Quinn said he had gotten some feedback from a presentation to the Chester Business Coalition and thought that some of the problems came down to hosted vs. unhosted rentals and suggested a departure from his “crawl, walk run” approach by putting limits on the number of days per year a whole house could be rented short term. He noted that might discourage people coming into town to buy up houses and turn them into STRs.

Bristow said that Woodstock does limit the number of days a year a dwelling can be a short-term rental.

Chester resident Ian Montgomery said he and his wife Polly bought a house in the Stone Village, calling it “a victim of 30 years of rental” and put significant money into re-habbing it with the intent of using the income to live in Chester during retirement.

Kathy Giurtino – another Stone Village resident – said she is concerned about losing neighbors to the rising short-term rental market. She noted that at least two houses across the street from her are likely to turn over in the next few years and she fears the “hollowing out” of the neighborhood.

Giurtino said she had done a lot of research on the problems with STRs and pointed to Conway, N.H., which she said was “hit like a tidal wave.” She then pointed to one person who owns 12 short-term rental houses and Europeans buying up properties sight unseen. She also asked if she has a voice in a house next door turning into a commercial property.

With a number of possible actions on the table —  including mandating a maximum percentage of housing stock that could be used for short-term rental, restricting the number of days to rent and not allowing non-resident rentals —  the commission had to decide whether to send the ordinance to the Select Board as is or revise it.

Commission member Tim Roper said that while it felt rushed, “There is some urgency in this.” Roper also suggested that the commission ask the Select Board to sign up for a service that monitors short-term rentals as a way of gathering data for further discussions.

In the end, the commission decided to meet again on Monday, Aug. 22 to finish the proposed ordinance and send it to the Select Board. The special meeting will only be about the ordinance.

Legacy use and adaptive re-use

The public hearing was to take comment on an amendment to the bylaws that would allow “legacy uses” and “adaptive re-use” in Chester. Bristow explained that the legacy use was designed to let parcels resume a use that had been discontinued for more than two years and that use is no longer allowed in that district. Adaptive reuse generally refers to the process of  converting an existing building to use for a purpose that it was not originally built or designed for. In the case of this bylaws amendment, it would also include an allowance for having a zoning use not available in the zoning district. An example might be a barn turned into a restaurant in a residential district where that use is not allowed.

As an example “legacy uses,” Bristow mentioned the Baba a Louis bakery on Route 11 West. Under the amendment, it would be up to the applicant to demonstrate that it had “a benign history that had become part of the town’s cultural history.” An application for a legacy use would require a conditional use hearing before the Development Review Board.

Select Board member Lee Gustafson asked how that could be demonstrated and Hudkins suggested neighbor feedback about the earlier use noting that the burden of proof would be on the applicant and the review would require public notice and would not be done “in a closet.”

Gustafson asked how the information for and against a project would be weighed and Quinn said that is “the hard job of the DRB.”

Roper said that in the past, the DRB dealt only with “black and white” issues in its deliberations but now it allows for judgment.

Gustafson’s questions prompted some discussion about the clarity of the legacy use.

“You’re not going to change a house into a bar because it was one in in 1947,” said member Barre Pinske who expressed misgivings about the change. “This should be real clear to someone like me who is on (the planning commission.)”

“You voted for this,” said Hudkins who told Pinske that he was confusing the terms of the legacy use with those of the adaptive re-use, which was next.

Bristow also explained that the adaptive re-use portion of the amendment would allow people who have buildings that have outlived the purpose for which they were built to apply to reuse them in a way that would not be allowed under current zoning regulations. Such purpose-built structures might include mill buildings, churches, armories and barns. Such buildings could be turned into apartments, a brewery or some other business, according to Bristow.

Like the legacy use, the adaptive re-use would also be subject to a conditional use hearing that would include some supplemental guidelines including that rehabilitation of the exterior not “significantly” change the appearance and such rehabilitation would conform to the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s standards for rehabilitating historic buildings.

In the end, the commission voted to send the amendment on to the Select Board for it to hold another hearing and consider adopting it.


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  1. Raymond Makul says:

    Perhaps we should all convert our homes to Airbnbs, and let them fund our retirements in Portugal. Thanks to short term rentals, most of the traffic on my dead end road is out of state cars, and the people out for a stroll are strangers who disappear after a few days, to be replaced by other strangers.

  2. Sean Whalen says:

    Editor, my previous comment contained an intemperate and gratuitous attack on a neighbor. I wish I could take that back. What I meant to say was, “Well said, Wendy.”

  3. Sean Whalen says:

    Wendy, thank you for your eloquent and humane expression. I take your words to heart. I hope everyone quoted in the article, for a start, reads what you’ve said here.
    Ian Montgomery: after 30 years here, I was unable to afford home ownership in Chester. So for the last 10 years I have been “victimizing” a rented house in another town nearby. By which I mean, we’re doing the best we can and raising our family there with love. Doesn’t fund anyone’s retirement – but like Wendy says, we lumpen folks, too, build the community the best we can. Because, you know, we’re raising our kids here. On Windsor County incomes. Maybe some day we’ll be lucky enough to retire and own rental property for tourists. Probably not. So go easy on the contempt, dude.
    This is why Wendy’s words are so important: regular people are getting screwed in this real estate market, because there’s often literally nothing left for them. This AirBNB crap is hurting working people and low income retirees who worked all their lives and aren’t fancy. She’s speaking the truth and I hope people hear it.

  4. Wendy Schwarz says:

    To The Board of Development Bylaws; and All Affected,

    A very real and ever-present hardship is that of the lack or marginal amount of full time rentals. This is compounded by the fact of a now larger, retired-fixed-income and elderly and/or impaired population who have lived here and have done their part in building Chester’s character, facilities,emneties and have been positive, active members for this community and area.

    This population in some to many cases are not be able to keep up with the exorbitant prices of home ownership and upkeep. Turning to FT rental holds little or no choices. Part time is not realistic; being geared toward tourism. Although we do have elder housing facilitation, it is not enough. This is an oppressive fact faced by those born post WWII and who want to and do need to be a part of Chester.

    Having such living facilitation for the elderly and impaired can hold in part to answering and helping to keep Chester’s integrity in character, community involvement and involvement with community programs alive. Factors and even challenges can be worked out. It starts with equal input without judgment. This positive input and thoughts are invited from all on this issue; for it is very important.
    Thank you,

    Wendy Schwarz

    PS I’m now finished.